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A Question Mark in Space

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA, ESA, CSA

This post is from the Revd Prof David Wilkinson’s reflection on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ programme on 14th August 2023. A link to the show, with audio of the reflection, can be found here.

Good morning. A giant question mark in space, in a photograph from the James Webb Telescope, has caused both speculation and amusement. The symbol was spotted in the background of two relatively close and well known proto-stars. However, rather than being a message from the alien equivalent of The Riddler, it’s probable that the question mark is two distant galaxies merging billions of light years away.

Yet the symbol is a helpful reminder of the nature of science. The Webb Telescope adds daily to our knowledge of this awe-inspiring universe. But several big questions remain unanswered. For example, we only know what 5% of the universe is actually made of – the other 95% is in the form of dark matter and dark energy and their nature remains elusive. Astrophysicists such as myself could be embarrassed by this, but we know that we know so little and are committed to search for the answers.

Science builds knowledge by asking questions. It is not primarily about knowing the right answers: it is about knowing how to ask the right questions. Science is provisional, always questioning its theories and data. In the last couple of days, the Muon g-2 experiment at the U.S. Fermi Laboratory announced results that may question the Standard Model of physics, which for decades has been believed to successfully describe how the universe works at the fundamental level of particles and forces.

Faith is often caricatured as believing without question those things you know aren’t true, but  questions have been central to my Christian belief. In the Bible, questions are an integral part of faith. The psalms are full of ‘why Lord’ questions in the midst of suffering and injustice and the author of Psalm 8 raises the cosmic question mark, ‘When I consider your heavens………the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are human beings that you are mindful of them?’. The answer that the psalmist pursues is not a philosophical theory of everything but the gift of relationship with the Lord of all.

Science has posed questions to my faith, and my faith has posed questions to my science. I don’t have all of the answers, but in asking those questions my excitement with science and with Christian faith has increased. One of those questions being pursued by the James Webb Telescope is whether there are Earth like planets where life could develop. ‘Are we alone in the universe?’ is an exciting question for me as both a scientist and a Christian.

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Article By The Revd Prof David Wilkinson

David is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology.

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